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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Hawaii farmers struggle in drought

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Loun Soulatha stands in the chili pepper part of the family's farm in Waimanalo. Irrigation restrictions mean the family can plant on only half of the farm's 10 acres.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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For information on emergency low-interest farm loans, contact Farm Service Agency offices:

Big Island: 933-8381

Maui: 244-3100

O'ahu: 483-8600

Kaua'i: 245-9014

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Although drought conditions appear to be easing in parts of the state, at least for the short term, some farmers and ranchers continue to struggle with a rain deficit that has been accumulating since late last year.

The leeward sides of most islands have suffered severe drought, with roughly 50 percent of normal rainfall over the first half of 2007, said Kevin Kodama, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu.

"When you come out of the wet season with sub-par rainfall, you're not going to expect any improvement until October, when the wet season opens up again," he said.

Ranchers who rely on unirrigated pasture lands have been hardest hit, along with Big Island farmers who depend on irrigation systems damaged by last October's earthquakes, said state Board of Agriculture Chairwoman Sandra Lee Kunimoto.

She said some ranchers and farmers are trucking in water to keep their livestock and crops alive, and that pasture lands have been so dry that ranchers are supplementing with commercial feed, substantially increasing their operating costs.


William Eby, of Maui's Erewhon Ranch, said supplementing with feed "is a losing deal. We tried that when we went through the four-year drought, and we lost our pants."

While current conditions aren't as bad as the previous drought, Eby said, it's been a struggle to maintain his 100 head of cattle in lower Kula.

"The cattle have all lost lots of weight, and it's not looking good at all," said Eby, 86. "There's nothing much more for them to eat, and we're just waiting for the rain, but it doesn't look like it's going to come."

Recent rains have provided some relief in other areas of the state, and yesterday it was announced that more help would be coming from an emergency farm loan program, following U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' approval Friday of a drought disaster designation for the entire state.

Gov. Linda Lingle requested the action June 15 based on continuing dry weather that has parched the Islands for the past seven months.

The USDA's Farm Service Agency conducted an assessment of the state's agricultural losses before recommending the disaster designation, said Rueben Flores, the agency's state executive director. He said the designation can be justified if a single crop sustains losses of at least 30 percent.

In recent years, the USDA disaster declarations have been issued once or twice a year in Hawai'i due to drought, excessive rains, flooding or high winds.

Flores said the details of the latest crop-loss assessment are confidential, but he said ranchers are suffering the most because unlike farmers, they do not rely on irrigation for supplemental water supplies.

The emergency low-interest loans may be used to replace essential property, pay production costs and essential family living expenses, and to refinance certain debts. They are available to family-operated farms and ranches.


Despite a low interest rate of 3.75 percent, Flores said, "few if any" Hawai'i farmers apply for the loans for the simple reason that they do want to take on additional debt.

"They are not really interested in these loans. They stay away, even though under this disaster designation, they are eligible," he said. "Unless they can recover quickly and pay the loan off, they know better."

When a similar designation was made in response to heavy rains and flooding in early 2006, fewer than a dozen farmers applied for the loans, Flores said.

The Big Island got some relief from Tropical Depression Cosme near the end of July, but the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that "an inch or more of rain at favored locations on the other islands was not enough to alleviate long-term deficits, so the drought depiction across the rest of Hawai'i was not changed."

Some parts of the state that were under voluntary water restrictions have moved to mandatory limits on water use, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

All five state-operated irrigation systems in the Islands are drying up, said Brian Kau, administrator and chief engineer for the Agricultural Resource Management Division. Waimanalo farmers are under a 20 percent reduction, and Waimea users on the Big Island are being asked for a 10 percent reduction.

"We're drier than we'd like to be," Kau said. "We have seen drier conditions, more dire conditions."

In the short term, the Hawai'i Weekly Crop Weather Report for the week ending Sunday says weather conditions are generally favorable for agriculture. Although trades winds brought light showers to windward areas, some of the rain drifted to leeward areas, said the report, prepared by the USDA and state Agriculture Department.

With soil moisture levels up, papaya, banana, cabbage, dry onion, tomato and other crops across the state are doing fair to good, the report said.

The effects of drought on O'ahu farmers depend on where they get their water from and what they are growing.

Waimanalo vegetable farmer Prany Soulatha said irrigation restrictions have meant she can plant on only half of her 10 acres, and she's not sure what the next months will bring because she is unable to plant new crops.

"The plants are suffering," Soulatha said. "In this kind of situation, all we can do is maintain the crop we already have, and we cannot grow the new crop because we need water every day for the new crop."


In a pinch, she has irrigated with potable water from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, but that costs as much as 200 times what she pays for state stream water, Soulatha said.

Neighboring flower farmer Lucy Hiraoka said the request to cut back on water use is normal for this time of the year and not much of a problem for her farm.

Limited water also is affecting farming in areas of Kaua'i.

"There's some land that we lease that we couldn't farm because there wasn't any water. Here on the west side, it's been extremely dry. We've had hardly any rain," said Randy Yokoyama, operations manager for Monsanto's seed operations on Kaua'i.

Sylvia Smith, of Lawa'i Foliage and Contracting, a nursery operator, said that while the drought has not been as bad in Lawa'i as elsewhere, her business has been taking precautions.

"We're getting a little more rain than everybody else, but I haven't washed my car in two months," she said.

Her business is setting up rainwater catchment storage systems and is opting for drip irrigation rather than overhead sprinkling because it requires less water, she said.

On the eastern side of the island, fruit farmer Jerry Ornellas said his acreage has gotten some rain in recent weeks that has taken the edge off the dry weather.

"June was really bad, but we got some relief in July," he said.

On Maui, overcast skies of late have helped reduce the need for irrigation despite limited rain, said Kula farmer Warren Watanabe, who also heads the Maui County Farm Bureau. His crop of baby greens, sold largely to restaurants, is more dependent on the tourist trade than on the weather, Watanabe said, and other vegetable crops also are OK.

"But there are some problems for the livestock industry. For vegetable crops you can bounce back a lot faster as opposed to livestock," he said.

For Kona coffee grower Bob Nelson, the weather couldn't be better.

"By golly, it's going to be a dynamite year," said Nelson, owner of the four-acre Lehuula Farms. "Overall, the rainfall for the year is low, but it was so evenly distributed throughout the year that everything is in real good shape."

Coffee has peculiar weather needs that aren't always in sync with other crops. The six to seven inches of rain Lehuula Farms received in July, leading into the harvest months, is expected to help boost production 30 percent, he said.

"It's an excellent year," Nelson said.

Staff Writers Eloise Aguiar and Jan TenBruggencate contributed to this report.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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